Amid one of her recurrent sleepless nights in 2019, the Brooklyn-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Xenia Rubinos crafted the foundation of the title track on her latest record, Una Rosa. Throughout those bouts, she’d be up writing at 4 a.m., other times she’d simply stared off, waiting for the sunrise. But one of those mornings, she kept hearing a melody inside her head and attempted to sing it out. Rubinos quickly realized that it was actually a memory from childhood—the sequence of notes that would emanate from her great-grandmother Octavia’s wind-up, fiber optic flower lamp. The only problem was that she couldn’t pin down the exact name of the song.
“I became obsessed with it,” Rubinos tells Remezcla. “For the next year, I was just scouring the internet. It was impossible to find.” Instead, she wrote an arrangement based on that sudden, vivid evocation. It wasn’t until flutist Domenica Fossati came in for a recording session during production that Rubinos was finally able to identify the song as “Una Rosa,” a piano-led danzón written by Puerto Rican composer José Enrique Pedreira. Rather than abandoning her reimagining of the track, Rubinos fine-tuned it into the cinematic and dreamy-yet-melancholic feat you hear on the album.
“I think that moment was definitely a part of Una Rosa coming to fruition,” she says. “There’s some kind of full circle significance that I’m still trying to make make sense.”
Taking its name from the track, Una Rosa is the much-anticipated successor to her 2016 album, the expansive Black Terry Cat. It’s rich with the elements of a transformative live performance—the kind that never quite disappears and hovers around in one’s memory. “Ay Hombre” unravels as Rubinos slowly breathes life into a devastating vignette with a weighty timbre (‘Ay hombre/En mi vida no he querido a nadie más/ Que quise a ti/Ay hombre/No pudiste darme la única cosa que pedí/Fue tu querer’), complete with a requinto-like riff. In the claves-driven song “Sacude,” she foregrounds her love for Guaguancó, a subgenre within Cuban rumba, while “Cógelo Suave” showcases her as a neo-soul star spearheading an interstellar jazz band.
The paradox here is that Rubinos’s latest work, co-produced by longtime collaborator and drummer Marco Buccelli, also happens to be the most electronic and “in the box” material that she’s released to date. It’s colored with synths and drum machine percussion and is accessorized with occasional autotune alchemy. However, what truly sets it all into motion is how she trustingly leans into the then-and-thereness of the present—what she describes as writing “into the record” rather than demoing and working out the kinks later—and knowing that anything she was recording at that moment could be the first and final take. “I wasn’t about perfection. The majority of what is on the record happened in the moment in the studio. It gave the music a lot of immediacy,” she notes.
“I wasn’t about perfection. The majority of what is on the record happened in the moment in the studio. It gave the music a lot of immediacy.”
The Cuban-Puerto Rican artist has never been one to shy away from using music as her medium to memorialize and zero in on the erasure of people of color. Her moments of steady rage are palpable in “Who Shot Ya,” a swift uppercut of a song that encapsulates the heaviness during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country in the summer of 2020 (‘Who shot the sheriff?/When they killed Breonna in her sleep/And they still out free?’), and the outrage over the ongoing crisis at the US-Mexico border (‘Who shot the sheriff? Children locked in cages, dare to dream/And they still not free’).
Una Rosa gives its listeners a set of contrasting ‘red and blue’ personas, but they cohabitate rather than drowning one another out–the lonesome, grieving woman among the mayhem of a New Year’s Eve party (“Did My Best”) is still in conversation with the voice you hear in “Don’t Put Me In Red,” which marks a drastic turning point exactly halfway into the record. Here, Rubinos rejects the fiery Latina typecast by transforming a recurring nightmare (consisting of her experiences as a tour opener where lighting engineers would leave her on red as she took the stage) into a defiant and assertive response to being tokenized: “Ask me where I’m going/Don’t ask me where I’m from,’ ‘You put me in red/It’s the color you think I’ve spent my life in.”
“‘Ask me where I’m going, don’t ask me where I’m from’ is a direct quote from my grandma. We were celebrating her 80th birthday and I asked her what her favorite moments of life were. She said ‘Don’t ask me what I’ve done, ask me what I’m about to do,’ and I was like…what?” Rubinos laughs as she recounts this. “She was like, ‘Don’t define me as if I’m this thing that’s over, like my best days are behind me.’ It was that embodiment of reclaiming your identity and not allowing someone to make assumptions and say ‘You’re 80, this is what you should be doing,’ or ‘You’re Latina, this is what you should be looking like.’ No, this is my space. I’m letting you know what this is.”
It’s nearly impossible to separate the active roles memory and time play in this set of recordings, not just rhythmically, but in a greater sense. Perhaps the full-circle moment of the hazy, dream-like recollection of Pedreira’s “Una Rosa ” that Rubinos introduces at the beginning of our phone call is how the past—or music histories passed down as a form of ancestral knowledge—continues to provoke the present.
“Rumba and danzón…all these traditional forms are important to my work,” she adds. “I’m not really reproducing those things as much as I am translating them into my own language. These are the impressions I have–of a melody, my abuela saying that one-liner to me, of this tragic and over-the-top diva singing a heartbreaking song–this is how I would do it. This is reclaiming it for myself now and in this moment, in the present, and in the future.”
Check out Una Rosa below.